Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked European diplomats during a Tuesday meeting why American taxpayers should care about Ukraine, according to a Bloomberg Politics report.
“Why should U.S. taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?” Tillerson asked the foreign ministers, known as the “Group of Seven," during what Bloomberg said was an offhand remark at meetings in Lucca, Italy.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault reportedly responded that U.S. taxpayers want their allies in the European Union to succeed and be “strong politically, strong from a security point of view, and strong economically.”
Tillerson’s comments about Ukraine come at a time when Trump administration has been under fire for his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Western European countries fear a growing Kremlin presence, especially with any actions that suggest it is trying to gain control over former Soviet bloc states.
State Department spokesman R.C. Hammond downplayed the comments, telling Bloomberg that Tillerson was simply using a “rhetorical device” with his question.
Tillerson has argued that the U.S. and Europe should not lift its sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea.
“The reason the sanctions were put in place continue to exist,” Tillerson said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
“There’s been no change of the status of the situation in Ukraine or Crimea. And those sanctions will remain in place until those issues are addressed.”